NBA Playoffs: The Difference-Makers
Lebron James is nowhere to be found. The two-time defending champion Warriors are making the most of their final days at Oracle Arena before jumping across the Bay. Sports Illustrated cover boy Giannis Antetokounmpo has emerged as one of the league’s most electrifying young talents. D-Wade has played his last NBA game. The Knicks? Well, they’re the Knicks.
The NBA Playoffs, which gets underway on April 13, will have a distinctly 2019 look. For the first time in five years, it won’t come down to Dubs vs. Cavs. While most of the postseason regulars are back, you’ll see some new faces, too — athletes whose careers are just beginning to take flight. We’ve singled out 16 players who could prove to be difference-makers in the coming weeks.
Golden State Warriors: There’s good reason Andrew Bogut is again donning the blue-yellow at Oracle Arena. For starters, the seven-foot Aussie is healthy, he knows the system, and he comes cheap. Plus, he’s a big man who can crash the glass, play defense and bring some spark to the locker room. It’s Steph, KD, Klay and Draymond who run the show, but Bogut could be the X factor.
Denver Nuggets: Fiery center Nikola Jokic has breathed some new life into a franchise that in many ways hasn’t been relevant since it drafted Carmelo Anthony out of Syracuse back in 2003. With the seven-foot Serb leading the way, the Northwest Division winners are into the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Could Jokic be a difference-maker in the playoffs?
Portland Trail Blazers: This is Damian Lillard’s team, however, the Blazers will only go so far without a significant contribution from CJ McCollum. The dynamic playmaker strained his left knee, but should be near 100 percent for Portland’s playoff push.
Houston Rockets: What James Harden has done this year is downright historic. His 32-game run with 30 or more points stands second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 65-game tear of ‘61-‘62. He notched his record fifth career 50-point triple-double, too. But even Harden admits the Rockets won’t reach the Promised Land without full-team contributions from guys like Swiss center Clint Capela.
Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell has quietly emerged as one of the sport’s most dynamic young scorers, and along with Portland’s Damian Lillard is one of only two players in NBA history to hit 175 three-pointers in each of his first two seasons in the league. The shooting guard is one of the main reasons Utah is through to the playoffs for the third straight year.
Los Angeles Clippers: Sending Tobias Harris eastward at the trade deadline couldn’t have been an easy decision for the Clippers. But what they got in return — a package that included rookie Landry Shamet — is already paying dividends. Shamet, a former Wichita State guard, recently set a franchise mark for most three-pointers in a game (seven). Maybe there is life after CP3 and Blake Griffin after all.
San Antonio Spurs: Manu Ginobili’s ‘20’ now hangs high in the AT&T Center rafters, and the Big Three era of Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker is officially a thing of the past. Still, Coach Pop has plenty to be excited about in San Antonio, thanks to the presence of guys like DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. However, it could be three-point phenom Bryn Forbes who has the biggest impact in the playoffs.
Oklahoma City Thunder: There’s no denying it. As goes Russell Westbrook, so go the Thunder. But the presence of six-time All-Star Paul George shouldn’t be overlooked. When February’s Western Conference Player of the Month is going right, OKC has the stuff to compete with anyone.
Milwaukee Bucks: You know you’re doing it right when Shaq gives you props. That was the case for Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 6-foot-11 power forward to whom O’Neal recently relinquished his ‘Superman’ title. The Greek big man possesses the all-court skills of a guard, and has become Milwaukee’s true playmaker. The MVP candidate led Mike Budenholzer’s Bucks to their first conference title in 45 years.
Toronto Raptors: Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry tend to occupy the spotlight most in Toronto, and rightly so. But if the Atlantic Division champs are going to have an impact in the playoffs, they’ll need the beyond-the-arc presence of Danny Green. As the onetime Tar Heel has shown, he can turn a game (and perhaps a series) when he gets hot from the perimeter.
Philadelphia 76ers: The Sixers are approaching the postseason with a big question mark in the form of seven-foot center Joel Embiid. The former Kansas standout, who has battled knee woes of late, has been a key performer all year long. If he’s not at 100 percent, Philly will need players like Ben Simmons and Zhaire Smith to step up big time.
Boston Celtics: To think that the Celts came within one game of the NBA Finals last year without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward. Though the franchise has had its struggles this year, Boston should be in a better position to make a run at the title in 2019 (at least from a health perspective). Keep your eyes on Al Horford. The versatile big man continues to assert himself as the team leader.
Indiana Pacers: For the Pacers to overcome the loss of Victor Oladipo (knee injury), they’ll need some rise-to-the-occasion production from players like Thaddeus Young, who has emerged a versatile weapon for Nate McMillan’s crew.
Brooklyn Nets: The take on D’Angelo Russell was that he wasn’t a leader. Maybe that’s why the Lakers — the team that drafted him out of Ohio State in 2015 — shipped the guard across the country two seasons later. But D’Angelo has asserted himself of late and has been the key to Brooklyn’s return to the playoffs for the first time in four years.
Orlando Magic: The Southeast Division titlists are into the playoffs for the first time since the Van Gundy years (2012-13) — ending the longest postseason drought in franchise history. It’s been quite a turnaround for the Magic in Steve Clifford’s first year at the helm. The team finished at 25-57 a year ago, but now has spoiler potential thanks to the efforts of players like onetime Trojan Nikola Vucevic, who is averaging above 20 points and 12 rebounds per game.
Detroit Pistons: Blake Griffin’s knee setback nearly cost the Pistons their first trip to the playoffs in three years. But even with the former Clipper on the bench, Detroit — at .500 for only the second time in 11 seasons — eked its way into the playoffs. Griffin’s availability will determine just how far Dwane Casey’s squad can go.